Tuesday, August 05, 2008

From radio to TV and back

Jay Thomas played goalie Eddie LeBec on CHEERS. But of course he’s best remembered as Susan Dey’s love interest in that smoldering romantic comedy LOVE & WAR. I’ve known Jay for thirty years. At one time we were disc jockeys together at the same station. His name came up at a dinner party (shows you the swinging parties I go to) and someone wondered if Jay was the biggest name to go from radio to television?

Aside from Ronald Reagan (and we all know that tired baseball recreation yarn) who became President of the United States (a position I suppose would qualify as most successful), I’d have to say actor-wise, Bob Crane. Throughout the early ‘60’s he was the morning man on KNX, Los Angeles before leaving to star in HOGAN’S HEROES. Radio remained in his blood, however, as evidenced by his obsession with porn.

A number of celebs got their start on the wireless. Gary Owens, certainly. He remained on KMPC, Los Angeles even during his LAUGH IN days. David Letterman’s career began as a platter spinner in Indiana (imitating Gary Owens). Wink Martindale was a jock before becoming a game show host, but I don’t know if game show host counts. Same with Jim Lange.

Dick Clark built an empire. So did Norman Lear (If I told you he wrote for the Martha Raye show would you even know who that was?)

Tennessee Ernie Ford spun the hits on KFXM in San Bernardino before his “sixteen tons” of fame. And Sly Stone was a GREAT jock in Oakland before forming the “family” band and taking four thousand drugs.

Robert David Hall, the coroner on CSI hailed originally from radio. And Marv Albert took your requests and dedications of WOLF, Syracuse prior to becoming the voice and toupee of the NBA.

A number of old time radio writers made the switch, none more successful or gifted than Larry Gelbart.

The late (and I miss him already) George Carlin toiled on KDAY, Santa Monica back in the day. Where do you think he got the thirteen things you can’t say on the air?

I’m sure you know of one or two (or thirty) that I missed.

Interestingly, a number of celebs are going the other way, from music and TV careers into radio. Steve Harvey, Smokey Robinson (who could talk right up to vocals with the best of ‘em), Chaka Kahn, Sinbad, Al Franken, Chad Stuart (from Chad & Jeremy) Steve Van Zandt, Janine Garafolo, Isaac Hayes, Ramsey Lewis, Tom Petty, and now, incredibly, Bob Dylan (on XM). And radio to TV people have returned to radio, if only to dabble in it. I'm doing Dodger stuff and KABC and Jay Thomas is back on the air on Sirius. At least to hear me you don't have to pay.

We’ve all got to come from somewhere. As a comedy writer, I found radio to be an invaluable training ground. You learn to be creative on-demand each and every day. You learn to be brief. You learn to be funny within a specific format. You learn how to file for unemployment.

And best of all, once you get out of radio to do something else you’ll find you finally get the respect among radio people you never received when you were actually working in radio. The best thing that could have ever happened for my radio career was to get into television.

And maybe the flip side will be true too. Maybe Al Franken will become the senator of Minnesota. That’s almost as good as President.


Anonymous said...

As a satellite radio fan, I found your comment about Jay Thomas on Sirius...regarding paying for the service...to be somewhat disingenuous....you only write for the common good, of course, never took a penny for your wares....you sound like an old fart, Ken, get with the program. Satellite radio provides an interesting entertainment alternative, and if people want to pay for it, what's the problem...jealous you don't have a show?

Anonymous said...

The most successful example right now would have to be Ryan Seacrest. He's definitely taken over where Dick Clark left off -- and whatever adults may think of him, he gives the tween pop fans exactly what they want.

Anonymous said...

Take a chill pill, anonymous. It's a joke. This blog often has that kind of humor. At least Ken signs his name to what he writes.

Velocity DeWitt said...

If I told you he wrote for the Martha Raye show would you even know who that was?

Well, sure! She, um, sold dentures, right?

Anonymous said...

"what's the problem...jealous you don't have a show?"

Uh hello? Ken does have a show, Dodger Talk, on KABC radio right after each of these Dodger game thingees. I've never heard it, (turned out it was not about The Artful Dodger in OLIVER TWIST.)but those that have, speak highly of it, as has the press.

"If I told you he wrote for the Martha Raye show would you even know who that was?"

PUH-LEAZE! Who hasn't seen her as WC Fields's daughter in THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938, or as Charlie Chaplin's murder-resistant other wife in MONSIEUR VERDOUX? Or, on a less-exalted level, as Bob Hope's girl friend in SWINGTIME with George Burns and Gracie Allen?

I suppose there are people who haven't seen these films, but I wouldn't want them in my living room.

I saw Martha Raye star in THE SOLID GOLD CADDILAC live onstage at Melodyland. From the third row, it looked large enough to fall into.

As for myself, I am someone who started in radio and went on to a career of stunning obscurity in TV, stage, films, and - ahem - literature. (Good, you can't see the smug smirk I wore as I typed the word "Literature".)

charlotte said...

"If I told you he wrote for the Martha Raye show would you even know who that was?" Martha Raye, denture wearer. And The Bugaloos!

Anonymous said...

I don't think it is a coincidence that almost all British TV comedy comes out of radio, whether it is writers, or in many cases actual shows like Little Britain.

Almost every comedy writer who writes TV in Britain has debuted on BBC radio and honed their craft there. Everyone from John Cleese to Graham Linehan to Andy Hamilton. Radio is a national asset.

Doktor Frank Doe said...

I saw Jay Thomas on Howard Stern once. He was great, pulls no punches and talks about the raw screwing he got on Cheers with his character. I love the guy and should get Sirius just because he just thinks out loud, there's no filters.

Anonymous said...

I came out of radio, went into television, helped create a show that made a billion dollars (literally: a heavily-merchandised kid show), got royally screwed over by the producers and went back into radio in disgust. For 17 years, I've been writing a syndicated daily topical radio humor service that gives me complete creative control writing for people I really like and who love and respect my work. But the financial rewards of radio are not very enriching, unless you're a Limbaugh or Stern.

But now, a celebrity who loves my work has signed a deal for a TV series and really wants me to write for it, so I'm being tempted again by the siren song of the boob tube. Stick with the creative freedom of radio and die poor, or go for TV bucks again and fight to get something really worthwhile onto the air? 'Tis a puzzlement.

BTW, in the radio-to-TV people, you forgot the two biggies of all time: Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen.

Anonymous said...

Hasn't Rick Dees done some horrible non-radio work over the years? (Not counting "Disco Duck".) If nothing else, his presence in La Bamba nearly ruined the film for me.

Anonymous said...

Having made the jump from radio traffic reporter, to TV traffic reporter, to midday radio DJ spinning the 60s 70s and 80s.

I can say that I am happy in radio, in spite of making a 'mark' of sorts as a tv traffic guy. (Search youtube for f-off traffic report. That's me!)

There's no dress code in radio, and for now, no split shifts!

Anonymous said...

Jack Benny. Although perhaps that's not quite the kind of radio career you had in mind.

Lucille Ball, too, but she was a B-movie bombshell before "My Favorite Husband." And she was only on the radio for a few years.

VP81955 said...

Let's not forget B.B. King and Rufus Thomas, who both had successful radio careers before going into R&B.

And in the late 1930s, Martha Raye was not only a film comedienne, but a singer, too. In fact, the great jazz vocalist Anita O'Day frequently cited her as an influence.

Anonymous said...

I saw Martha Raye just the other night, with Charlie Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux. Interesting movie.

Anonymous said...

Thom Barry, one of the stars of the CBS show COLD CASE was a disc jockey. We worked together in the last gasp of glory that was L-A country station KLAC. A real mench!

Thom bought and restored my '66 Plymouth Barracuda. Used to see him squeezed into in on the 101. I'm so proud.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, getting into old fart territory here. Gotta love you guys from "free" radio with 40 minutes of commercials in an hour. I can listen to Howard Stern go for an hour and twenty minutes without a break, or Jay sounding off with neither interruption nor any government or coroporate censors butting their big noses in. I mean, how much is your time worth? And the music is really 100% commercial free and censorshiop free. Ask Cousin Brucie, who's found a new life yet again, on satellite, if he minds people voting with their wallets to hear him.
Ken, I'm sure as satellite radio becomes the dominant radio medium you'll be changing your tune.
I'm also pretty sure that corporate muckety mucks will use that dominance to squeeze every penny they can out of consumers, by which time the next big thing will be coming along, and old farts will be whining about how that is replacng them.
I don't think traditional radio l is totally done yet; I still love flipping around and finding the odd local station, in Greek, Korean, Russian, what have you, or college stations staffed by pimple faced kids just learning who John Coltrane is, playing A Love Supreme or some long form tune you'd never hear on commercial radio. And low power comunity radio stations are springing up here and there, giving voice to many who have been under-represented in media.
However, the big guns of commercial radio have no one to blame but themselves for the sorry state of the industry. In their quest to consolidate as many stations as possible with the most banal, inoffensive prgrammming, they've capitulated to the wacko censorship demands they think they need to appeal to mass markets, and to get their acquisitions approved.
Isn't it ridiculous that people are increasingly turning off "free" radio and actually ponying up cash for an alternative? What does market economics say about that? Demand for that product must be pretty low if you're giving it away and people want to pay for an alternative.

Rant over. Thanks Ken, for the great blog. I appreciate you sharing your advice, I respect your experience as a professional writer and broadcaster, and of course thanks for the yucks! I guess this is just pent up frustration at the death of radio. It's kind of sad that so many people are willing to pay for it now.
It shouldn't have come to this.

By Ken Levine said...


Don't get me wrong. I LOVE SATELLITE RADIO!!

I'm one of the original subscribers to XM. Their music, baseball coverage -- it can't be beat.

But it costs. To me it's worth every penny. But that's me.

Unknown said...

I'd vote for Gary Owens for President! I hope he is doing very well!

Making the move from radio to TV with Jack Benny and Bob Hope was writer Milt Josefsberg. He wrote the first book on comedy writing I read, and it is still one of my favorites.

It is unfortunate that so many markets end up with syndicated radio programming, instead of hiring local talent. They could be missing out on hiring the next big star to make the move to TV....

Satellite radio is awesome, especially considering some of the voice-tracked, syndicated alternatives out there.

Adam Rogers said...

Shadoe Stevens, right? Had a short-lived detective show that used a Yello tune as the theme song....

Anonymous said...

Can't quibble with you naming Larry Gelbart as the most gifted and successful of the old-time radio writers who transitioned into TV. But also worth a mention is Nat Hiken, who had a very popular local radio show in L.A. called "The Grouch Club," then went on to write for Fred Allen and other radio stars. Moving to television, he created the "Phil Silvers Show" (Sergeant Bilko) and "Car 54 Where Are You?" And who knows, he might have given Gelbart a run for his money had he not died of a heart attack at 54 in 1968.

By Ken Levine said...

You guys are finding some great additions. A few I can't believe I overlooked. I mean, Ryan Seacrest. How could I forget him? He's on every show radio and television that exists.

And YES YES YES on Nat Hiken. I will do a separate post on him. One of my comedy writing IDOLS.

Joey H said...

There was this young DJ on KFAB in Lincoln, Nebraska. He later did a bit of television. Carson, I think, was his name.

And speaking of Jay Thomas, this is still one of the funniest stories I've ever heard:


Anonymous said...

A few more (though not of the level of Bob Crane or Gary Owens)

Dick Whittinghill (KMPC) hosted "Celebrity Golf" in the early 60s (it shows up overnights on the Golf Channel now and then).

Sweet Dick Whittington (KGIL) was a regular on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In for a season or two.

Wolfman Jack (XERB) hosted "The Midnight Special".

Lohman & Barkley (KFI) had their own late-night weekend talk show and I believe hosted a short-lived game show as well.

Casey Kasem (KRLA) hosted the syndicated dance show "Shebang".

Terry McGovern (KSFO, KSAN) did some acting (The Candidate, American Graffiti, The Enforcer, Mrs. Doubtfire).

Geoff Edwards (KMPC) was a game show host.

And, though he hasn't had a hit on TV, Phil Hendrie has attempted the transition.

Anonymous said...

"Martha Raye was not only a film comedienne, but a singer, too."

Goes without saying. After all, you can't watch her play WC Fields's daughter without hearing her - well "warble" doesn't seem the right word, let's say - bellowing "Mama, Oh Mama" with a volume so huge that Ethel Merman would say "Hey, reign it in Martha. My ears are bleeding."

Martha's accomplishments were many: She was briefly married to Ed Begley. Not THE Ed Begley (or even the Ed Begley Jr.) but merely AN Ed Begley. Apparently there are dozens. She was briefly married to one of Judy Garland's husbands. (One of the straight ones.) Her last husband, of 7, was a man 33 years her junior who was so gay that even Liza Minnelli wouldn't marry him. (Not having sex with a young man is so much hotter than not having sex with an old man. And she had known him for almost an entire month before the wedding.)

Fun fact about Martha, especially for her writers: She couldn't read, and her scripts had to be read to her.

Inspiring as her work as a Polydent pitchwoman was, since it seems to be all most people remember, there was her enormous amounts of charity work, which won her the Jean Hersholt Humaitarian Award and The Presidential Medal of Freedom, and her tireless trips abroad, despite a crippling fear of flying, to entertain troops in Vietnam. She was an honorary Green Beret and the first female honorary Friar.

To see her much on TV, you'd have to go back a bit over 20 years, to her recurring roles on ALICE and McMILLAN AND WIFE.

22 movies, appearing with Bob Hope, WC Fields, Burns & Allan, Charlie Chaplin, Olson & Johnson, Abbot & Costello, Jack Benny - hell, it would be easier and shorter just to list who she didn't ever work with.

But what's the first thing that pops into people's memories? Polydent. There's something horribly telling about our culture there.

Anonymous said...

Well actually, Sweet Dick Whittington was only on 13 episodes of LAUGH-IN, and in some of those he was not seen much after his opening titles billing. But he was a co-host on ALMOST ANYTHING GOES.

Lohman & Barkley's game show was called NAMEDROPPERS. They also did a single movie appearance. And their late-night show was more of a sketch comedy show than a talk show. Among the folks who came out of THE LOHMAN & BARKLEY TV SHOW were Craig T. Nelson, McLean Stevenson, Barry Levinson, and Rudy De Luca.

Casey Kasem starred with Bruce Dern and my dear frined Larry Vincent in AIP'S THE INCREDIBLE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT. (And for completeness's sake, Sweet Dick was in AIP'S THE THING WITH TWO HEADS.)

My old friend Terry McGovern was also a recurring character on FERNWOOD TONIGHT and it's revamp, AMERICA TONIGHT.

Anonymous said...

Jack Benny is missing from the list. He was one of the biggest to switch, though I'm not sure if it counts since it was at the beginning.

Anonymous said...

The Real Don Steele!

Tina Delgado IS alive!

Anonymous said...

Don't get me wrong I love satellite radio, I work for Sirius. But there is something much bigger coming. Soon you'll stream the internet in your car. Of course content is king no matter what the medium but getting Caribbean folk songs anytime I want is way cool.

Cap'n Bob said...

Perhaps the biggest (or maybe richest) celebrity/star to come out of radio was Gene Autry.

I remember Martha Raye, mainly from Late Show movies. Later on she did the Polident commercials and made a fool of herself by marrying the youngster.

Anonymous said...

C'mon! Don Steele - Death Race 2000, Grand Theft Auto, Rock N Roll High School, Eating Raoul...

There are probably more that I'm missing.

Seacrest out!

Anonymous said...

Ken; you knew we'd "add some" that you missed in our comments, so here I go:

Donald Sutherland, paying your dues has to be starting out in radio in Canada, and in the Maritimes.

Humphrey Bogart, did some radio dramas.

Bob Hope, although he didn't start there he did quite well. He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1990.

Orson Welles, I think he had a successful broadcast or two.

I would hazard a guess that a lot of performers spend some time working in radio. An interesting list would those that didn't - I'm pretty sure Buster Keaton would be on this list, but who knows...

Anonymous said...

Martha Raye was helluva broad. And you forgot Castro who went from US baseball to full-on dictator and represser extrordinaire!


Anonymous said...

Oh, and though he was noted here for playing in Martha Rae pictures, I see no mention of George Burns as a transitioner. He went from Vaudeville to radio to tv and film. Talk about some major transitioning. A lot of those bits on the old radio programs were straight out of Vaudeville, with a little cleaning up for concerned corporate sponsors.

Anonymous said...

Martha Raye was Mel Sharples mom on Alice. Who doesn't know that?

And as for radio, I keep hearing the next big thing is The Radio Dan Show. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Stacey...the story that Fidel Castro had a tryout with an American baseball team is considered an urban myth.

Daddy Background said...

Well, I can't let someone bring up Donald Sutherland without chiming in with the Voice of Doom and Canadian icon Lorne Greene.

Anonymous said...

I guess in more recent times, there has been Adam Carolla and Jimmy Kimmel